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Mr. Brown Reviews Good Movies! (Part I)

Sorry about the lack of movie reviews over two weeks, but as promised, i'm talking nothing but good movies all this week. Up next is writer/director P.T. Anderson's The Master, and then the black comedy Seven Psychopaths. Today, we start off with Ben Affleck's Argo.

On November 4, 1979, 52 members of the American Embassy were taken hostage by Iranian militants and students of the Iranian Revolution, where the dictatorial Shah of Iran, Mohammad. Reza Pahavi was forced out by the new ruler Ruholla Khomeini and was given refuge on American shores. The demands were to hand over the despot ruler so that he may face Iranian justice for the numerous crimes he committed against the Iranian people The hostage situation; the anger and frustration both sides felt and experienced - Iranians feeling that the United States was covering for a heinous criminal; the United States angry at then-President Jimmy Carter's ineffectiveness to bring home U.S. citizens - was said to be the major factor in Carter's defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1980. On that day, 6 American diplomats evaded capture from the wrath of the angry mob, and hid out in the Canadian Embassy. History tells us that the Canadian government hatched a plan to disguise the Americans as Canadians and have them leave the country, acting as Canadian filmmakers. It wasn't until 1997 when President Clinton declassified a report that the Canadian parliament, along with the CIA helped bring back it's own citizens, but for the sake of the ongoing hostage situation and fearful of the backlash it would bring about, the mission was declassified and Canada took the credit.


In 2012, Ben Affleck told that story of the CIA's efforts to bring them home. And damn, what a job he did in telling it. Argo, the third directorial outing by Affleck, who previously directed the excellent Gone Baby Gone in 2007 and then followed up with the overrated heist drama The Town in 2010. This time, Affleck dives into international waters and comes up with a rousing, thrilling, and often funny feature that shows just what a talent the Affleck has in directing movies. The director is also the star of the film: he plays the man who helped orchestrate the daring rescue, Tony Mendez. He comes up with, what his boss, Jack O'Donnell
(Bryan Cranston of TV's Breaking Bad) says to Vice President Walter Mondale (Phillip Baker Hall) "It's the best bad idea we have." The scenario is to disguise the trapped Americans as Canadian filmmakers scouting Tehran for a science fiction film called Argo and bring them home with fake visas and identities. Really. That was the idea. If it sounds like something only Hollywood would come up, that's because a few members were in on the scam/rescue mission.

Enter the film's comic relief duo: producer Lester Siegel (a wise-cracking Alan Arkin) and Tony's contact, make-up artist John Chambers (the reliable John Goodman) who aide Mendez in the scene, coming up with a a real Hollywood screenplay, faking press about the movie to Variety, even coming up with real storyboards to sell the authenticity of the "project". The six stuck inside the Canadian Embassy are all skeptical of his plan once he steps foot in Tehran, especially when Mendez takes the desperate Americans out to the middle of the city in order to deceive Iranian govt. officials that this "film" is really happening, which  almost turns into a riot on the streets.

Within its 120 minute runtime, Argo moves briskly and urgently like the day of the mission, a thrilling third act that keeps you glued to your seat as the drama goes into a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase between getting out of Tehran and getting caught by the angry militant army. There are no gunfights, Jason Bourne-like fight scenes, or even shaky cam to highlight the tension. Yet Affleck is still able to have the audience in his vice-like grip because he does what any great filmmaker does with a story like this: he builds up the stakes through character and story. We feel the fear the trapped Americans have, and the weight Mendez is carrying on this mission, and when regular Iranian children piecing together the shredded documents from the US Embassy discover the identities of the six missing hostages, the suspense is raised tenfold and the rescue now turns into a fight for their very lives, and that makes for gripping cinema. More than that, Argo captures the anger and resentment both sides had about the very situation: Iran wanted retribution for the sins of years of American interference in their affairs, and Americans grew more resentful of the Carter White House for what they saw was a government siting idly buy and not going full force on the bastards responsible.

However, the biggest problem with Argo comes down to the title character. While Aflleck does a serviceable job play Mendez, I couldn't help that he didn't feel right at times paying Tony Mendez. An actor like Robert Downey Jr. could tackle the role of weary CIA agent who's betting it all on this one crazy idea and will be dead and forgotten if this operation goes up in flames and run away with it. That, and the terrible hairpiece on Affleck's dome didn't help matters eventhough he was trying to convey the styles of the late 70's/early 80's. Even there, what I feel as miscasting at times, this film is still a near-triumph of suspenseful filmmaking by a true talent behind the camera, and a movie that shouldn't be ignored come Oscar time.

*** 1/2 stars out of ****

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